What are the environmental impacts when manufacturing electronic products?

Jul 9, 2024PCB assembly

environmental considerations in PCB assembly

As corporate citizens, it’s our collective responsibility to minimise the environmental impact of manufacturing new technologies. In the past, electronics manufacturing has had a significant negative effect on the environment, the standard carbon footprint of PCB production and assembly being considerable. However, with the arrival of sustainable best practices and advancements in manufacturing technology and materials, contract electronics manufacturers (CEMs) are now able to greatly reduce their environmental footprint, while continuing to supply essential PCB assemblies. This blog covers the historical impact, best practices and key considerations for ensuring CEMs produce PCBAs sustainably.

Environmental impact of assembled PCBs

Since the mid-1950s, when the manufacturing and assembly of PCBs began, sustainable practices were not yet widely adopted by contract electronics manufacturers. Consequently, the environmental impact was significant during this period. The use of materials and energy-intensive processes without adhering to sustainable best practices resulted in the following environmental issues:

Waste generation

During the assembly process, waste material, such as PCB cut-off substrates, defective PCBAs, trimmings from leads and cables, as well as obsolete components, or assemblies that had reached their ‘end of life’, were duly sent to landfill to leach dangerous toxins into the soil. Others were incinerated, releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) , such as benzene and acetone, into the atmosphere, diminishing air quality.

Power intensive manufacturing processes

PCB assembly involves various manufacturing processes, such as high-temperature reflow ovens used in the surface mounting process to solder components onto the boards. Without regular maintenance and process optimisation, these technologies can consume significant amounts of energy.

Harmful chemicals and emissions

Improper handling or disposal of harsh chemicals, such as non-eco-friendly cleaning agents like flux, and the use of non-lead-free solder can release harmful elements into the air, water systems, and soil.

Packaging and transport

A previous lack of awareness and incentives to utilise recyclable and reusable packaging materials, combined with inefficient logistics management and the use of high-emission transportation, contributed to the carbon of circuit board assembly.

Complex, unchecked supply chains

Sourcing components for PCB assembly often involves navigating complex and extensive supply chains. In the past, if the operating credentials of suppliers were not as thoroughly vetted and monitored as they are today, predicting the quality of materials, as well as the potential for bulk ordering opportunities, could be very challenging, resulting in increased order frequency, further negatively impacting the environment.

Best practices for sustainable electronics manufacturing

As CEMs recognise the potential environmental impact of their manufacturing activities, a full suite of best practices has been readily embraced to ensure PCBs are assembled sustainably. These practices include:

Designing PCBs with sustainability in mind

CEMs now prioritise eco-friendly designs by selecting materials that are less harmful to the environment, using components that minimise energy consumption and optimising designs to reduce waste – including designing for longevity and ease of recycling.

Sourcing materials from sustainably focused suppliers

By collaborating with suppliers who share a commitment to sustainability, CEMs ensure that the components they use are produced and transported in an environmentally responsible manner. This includes sourcing materials from suppliers that adhere to stringent environmental standards and use renewable energy in their production processes.

Partnering with accredited waste disposal experts

CEMs carefully select and work with accredited waste disposal companies that specialise in recycling and safely disposing of hazardous materials. This partnership ensures that waste is managed in compliance with local and international environmental regulations and best practices.

Investing in cutting edge technologies to ensure manufacturing efficiency

Manufacturers have adopted advanced production technologies, such as automation, precision machinery and energy-efficient equipment to enhance production efficiency and reduce resource consumption. These technologies not only lower the carbon footprint but also improve overall operational efficiency, reducing costs and waste.

Implementing IS014001

ISO 14001 is an internationally recognised standard for environmental management systems. By achieving or working to this standard, CEMs demonstrate their commitment to continuous environmental improvement. This involves regular audits, setting measurable environmental objectives, and adhering to a framework that promotes sustainable practices across all aspects of PCB assembly.

By integrating these best practices, CEMs not only mitigate their environmental impact but also set a standard for PCB sustainability in the electronics industry.

MPE as a sustainable electronics manufacturer

When it comes to PCB assembly, sustainable manufacturing best practices are at the heart of MPE’s operations.

“As a CEM that is 100% committed to sustainable PCB manufacturing, we recycle and reuse materials wherever possible; even our solder waste is collected by our solder supplier for recycling. We also partner with accredited electric and specialist chemical waste disposal contractors, and ensure REACH compliance. As part of our continual dedication to improving the efficiency of our manufacturing process, we also invest in the latest technologies, most recently a new pick and place machine to improve precision of component placement, avoiding rework and reducing waste,” explains Nicola Evans, Managing Director at MPE.

In addition to MPE’s overall recycling efforts, any surplus materials are sold to customers at the end of their projects to replenish their stock. Where this is not a suitable option, MPE partners with specialist component suppliers, supplying them with the excess devices and ensuring they do not end up in landfill. Any packaging that cannot be recycled is readily donated to local charitable organisations who would benefit from these materials.

Learn more about MPE’s sustainable PCB assembly
best practices in more detail here

Key questions to ask your manufacturing partner

When selecting a PCB assembly manufacturer, it’s essential to ensure they follow sustainable best practices. Here are some key questions to ask to assess their commitment to sustainability in the electronics industry:

  • Do you have or are seeking to have an environmental management system in place, such as ISO14001 certification?
  • How often do you conduct environmental audits and what improvements have you implemented based on audit findings?
  • How do you ensure the materials and components you use are sourced sustainably?
  • What measures have you implemented to reduce energy consumption in your manufacturing processes?
  • How do you manage and dispose of waste generated during PCB assembly?
  • Do you work with accredited waste disposal experts to ensure safe and environmentally friendly disposal of hazardous materials?
  • What percentage of your waste is recycled and what steps do you take to minimise waste production?
  • How do you incorporate sustainability into your PCB design process?
  • What steps do you take to minimise the use of hazardous chemicals in your processes?
  • Are you compliant with regulations such as RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) and REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals)?
  • Do you provide regular training on environmental practices and the importance of sustainability for your employees?
  • Do you publish an annual sustainability report or provide transparency on your environmental impact and progress?
  • What kind of packaging do you use for your products and how do you ensure it is sustainable?

The future of sustainable electronics manufacturing

When it comes to future sustainable electronics manufacturing, and in particular PCB assembly, responsibility lies with CEMs, suppliers and customers alike. Ensuring your chosen CEM partner is committed to sustainable best practices will be crucial to preserving resources and minimising environmental impact for generations to come.

MPE Electronics is an established and experienced contract electronics manufacturer specialising in PCB assemblies and full box build assembly for a wide range of commercial and industrial businesses.

To find out how MPE Electronics’ PCB manufacturing and assembly services can benefit your business, contact our expert and friendly team on +44 (0)1825 764822 or enquiries@mpe-electronics.co.uk.

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